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What's Up in the 8th

If you lose your trial, you'll have a tough time getting that reversed on appeal.  If you lose your appeal, you'll have an even tougher time changing that outcome in post-conviction relief.  Reno Woodard, Maurice Jackson, and Matthew Warmus found that out last week. 

Marcus Blalock, though, might get lucky.

Three years ago, Warmus went to a Cavs game, and got into an argument over a parking spot, with the attendant, Williams, claiming it was a $20 fee, and Warmus contending it was half that.  Williams put Warmus in a headlock and punched him.  Warmus, who had a concealed carry permit, got a gun from the trunk of his car and pumped two bullets into Williams' stomach, then a final shot behind the left ear.  The 8th District affirmed his conviction, the Ohio and United States SupremeCourt denied review, and so here he comes with post-conviction relief.  He learns the concept of res judicata; all his arguments, the court tells him in State v. Warmus, were or could have been raised on direct appeal. 

Including, it seems, some that couldn't have been raised on direct appeal:  he alleges two claims of ineffective assistance, attaching affidavits to his petition because they clearly were not part of the record, and couldn't have been addressed on appeal.  Chalk this up to the overwhelming nature of the evidence against Warmus, and the court's unwillingness to do anything for someone who brings a gun to a fistfight.

Jackson and Woodard fare no better.  Ohio inmates form a network, too, and lately a number of defendants, Woodard among them, have been filing post-conviction relief petitions alleging that the court clerk in Cuyahoga County doesn't place a "time stamp showing journalization" on the entry, as required by the criminal rules.  Note to inmates:  stop it; it's not going anywhere. 

Jackson's latest attempt is as futile as its predecessors:  since he entered a guilty plea to kidnapping and rape in 2000, he's filed seven separate motions arguing that the two offenses were allied should have merged.  Where to begin?  Probably with the original plea, in which Jackson agreed to a seventeen-year sentence, nine for the rape and eight for the kidnapping.

Blalock is equally persistent, but has better reason to be.  Blalock and Johnson, McCauley, and Willis were indicted for aggravated murder and various other charges in the death of a drug dealer in 2001.  On the basis of Willis' testimony - there was no other evidence linking Blalock to the shooting - a jury convicted him of aggravated murder.  He was sentenced to 28 to life; Willis cut a deal, and got four.  The 8th District tinkered with Blalock's sentence, but affirmed the convictions, and the Ohio Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal.

Sometimes courts get so bogged down in the law and its technicalities that they lose sight of the ultimate purpose of a legal system.  The goal is not to "do law," but to do justice.  Over the next decade, Blalock presented the courts with telephone conversations and letters between Willis and McCauley, in which Willis came close to outright acknowledgment that she was the one who'd killed Rose.  The Federal district court in habeas concluded that "the state of Ohio may have convicted the wrong person," but nonetheless decided he wasn't entitled to relief because perjured testimony, in the absence of a showing that the prosecutor was aware of it, isn't a due process violation. 

Blalock fared no better in state court.  In his first motion for new trial in 2002, he produced the pre-sentence reports for McCauley and Johnson, in which both men had claimed that they helped move Rose's body after Willis shot him.  The trial court and the 8th District held this was not "newly discovered" evidence because the statements were similar to ones given by McCauley and Johnson to the police before Blalock's trial, and had been provided to him.  His motion for new trial in 2007, based upon the telephone conversations and letters between Willis and McCauley, met the same fate:  the trial court dismissed the motion without a hearing, and the 8th District affirmed, concluding that res judicata barred the motion, since it simply raised the same argument Blalock had raised earlier:  that Willis had been the shooter.   And when Willis filed another motion for new trial in 2013, this time supplementing it with an affidavit from an inmate who'd done time with McCauley, and who'd read some of the letters between him and Willis, and stated that McCauley told him Blalock's only involvement was in moving the body after Willis killed Rose, the state argued res judicata, and the judge agreed, once more denying the motion without a hearing.

But sometimes a court will cut through the fog and get to the heart of the matter, and last week in State v. Blalock the court did exactly that.  The panel first found that the judge abused her discretion in denying the motion without a hearing, since the inmate's affidavit certainly couldn't have been discovered within 120 days after trial.  But more importantly, it cleared away the biggest impediment to Blalock's claim:

Res judicata is a rule of fundamental and substantial justice, that is to be applied in particular situations as fairness and justice require, and that is not to be applied so rigidly as to defeat the ends of justice or so as to work an injustice.  The record in this matter raises lingering concerns about the validity of Blalock's conviction so as to render the application of the doctrine of res judicata to his motion for a new trial an injustice.

It's by no means certain that Blalock's going to wind up with a new trial, but kudos to the panel for sensing that a wrong had been committed, and doing what it could to correct it.

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